Nigeria’s opening World Cup defeat by Croatia definitely was not what the Super Eagles were expecting or hoping for as they began their campaign in Russia.
Having had so much fanfare accompany the Super Eagles to the World Cup, one would be forgiven to have expected that excitement and oomph to automatically translate into good performances on the pitch.
If Nigerians had already been getting carried away by the pre-World Cup hype, then the 2-0 defeat to Croatia has definitely brought them back to reality. Losing in any sport is always hard to take, make no mistake, but there is a way to lose and a way not to lose.
It wasn’t really the defeat that hurt fans of the three-time African champions, but the manner in which they surrendered to Zlatko Dalic’s side. It was listless, tame and dreary.
Having seen a well-organized Iceland team hold Argentina to a 1-1 draw earlier, it would not have been out of place to expect the Super Eagles to come out bursting at the seams knowing full well they needed to win, or at least not lose, following the aforementioned draw. However, they did not get the memo.
There were a couple of surprising inclusions in Gernot Rohr’s lineup too, notably Leon Balogun and Oghenekaro Etebo. The former was an injury doubt only 24 hours earlier, while the latter was preferred to the out of sorts Ogenyi Onazi whose performances in recent games had prompted calls for his omission from the side. Rohr obliged and his selection would certainly have been met with several nods of approval.
In the events that ensued, you definitely feel the Nigeria manager and players would be pulling their hair out at how meekly they let the Blazers walk all over them. Even more frustrating for the fans of the Nigerian team is the fact that Croatia’s win came not after an emphatic display, but an error-ridden performance on their part.
The prevalent defensive frailties – most especially from set-plays, are not showing any signs of diminishing, and it was not so much of a surprise the European nation’s goals originated from situations that have unnerved the side recently.
The drafted-in Etebo was the unlucky player to inadvertently put Croatia ahead. Although, it should be noted that the initial error was made by Odion Ighalo who was beaten to the first ball by Ante Rebic, before Leon Balogun who, in trying to anticipate where Luka Modric’s corner would drop, left his position on the edge of the six-yard box unguarded.
Mario Mandzukic duly flew in with a diving header that went in off Etebo.
The second came after William Troost-Ekong was duly punished by referee Sandro Ricci for wrestling Mandzukic to the ground and Modric converted the resulting spot-kick with ease.
The Super Eagles then lost their shape totally after the Croats doubled their lead, and were saved by their opponents choosing to see out the game rather than go for the kill.
Lessons have to be learned in the aftermath of the defeat and the side has to get better.
Those improvements will be provoked by hard choices made by Rohr in his selection.
In-form players need to feature and enough of square pegs in round holes.
At right-back, the out of sorts Abdullahi Shehu might have to make way for the young Tyronne Ebuehi, who has impressed whenever he deputized in that role. Mikel John Obi needs to play deeper, irrespective of the fact that he thrived in the hole in qualifying, he plays better in a defensive-midfield role that allows him dictate the tempo of the game.
That, in turn, frees up Nigeria’s most creative player in Alex Iwobi who is somewhat wasted out wide when he can do so much more damage centrally.
However, following the magnificent Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi playing well as a pair in the pivot against Croatia, should the out-of-form Mikel then be dropped from the side?
Up front, the under-fire Ighalo might have to make way for another forward, be it Kelechi Iheanacho or the untested Simy Nwankwo.
Admittedly, the forward was often isolated in the Croatia defeat, and the dreadful transitions of the team made his job a lot more difficult.
Nevertheless, it should be on the record that the Changchun Yatai forward has not scored for the Super Eagles since the 4-0 defeat of Cameroon in September last year.
Iheanacho has not been firing on all cylinders either, but he has not been given as many opportunities anyway, so his poor return is fairly expected. The untried Simy gives the team a target-man figure in the side and he’s someone the players can play off, as he’d offer better hold-up play than the aforementioned duo.
Another worrying trend is the tendency of the team to start slowly and then grow into the game.
Playing well consistently over the course of games rather than in fits and starts would definitely have a better effect on the side as they wouldn’t have to play catch-up every time by falling behind. Things certainly need to get better, and Nigeria’s head coach will need to get the best out of his players in the next two games if they’re to stay in the competition.
You still get the feeling that four points from games against Iceland and Argentina might do the trick and secure qualification from what is shaping up to be a tightly contested group.
However, the former are dogged and committed, while the latter have a godlike figure in their ranks… it will be difficult, but definitely not impossible if Rohr takes heed from the lessons learned against Croatia!
-Omidiora writes for Goal.com